Leaders Seek Funds for Syria, Elusive Stability for Region

February 4, 2016 Updated: February 4, 2016

LONDON—Leaders and diplomats from 70 countries are meeting in London Thursday to pledge billions to help millions of Syrians displaced by war—and try to slow the chaotic exodus of refugees to Europe.

The one-day meeting, held under tight security near the British Parliament, is aimed at gathering donations and agreeing on plans for economic and educational projects to help the 4.6 million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The meeting opens hours after the latest U.N.-led bid to start peace talks in Geneva was suspended for three weeks—a sign of major difficulties. The faltering peace process increases pressure on donor countries to commit long-term aid to the victims of a five-year civil war that has no quick end in sight.

The U.N. and regional countries say they need $9 billion in assistance for 2016 alone, as the situation in the region deteriorates,

Conference co-host Britain has pledged 1.2 billion pounds ($1.75 billion) in new aid between now and 2020, and Secretary of State John Kerry is due to announce the U.S. commitment later.

Previous aid conferences for Syria have failed to meet their targets. Last year’s, in Kuwait, raised just half its $7 billion target, forcing cuts to programs such as refugee food aid.

But this year’s organizers—which include Britain, Germany and the U.N.—hope that finding jobs and schools for refugees can foster stability and keep displaced Syrians in the Middle East, slowing the chaotic migration of refugees to Europe.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that “using fundraising to build stability, create jobs and provide education can have a transformational effect in the region—and create a future model for humanitarian relief.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron at the "Supporting Syria Conference" at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, England, on Feb. 4, 2016. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron at the “Supporting Syria Conference” at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, England, on Feb. 4, 2016. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

“And we can provide the sense of hope needed to stop people thinking they have no option but to risk their lives on a dangerous journey to Europe,” he said.

The conference also will discuss plans to create economic incentives for countries that are under the strain of housing millions of newcomers.

The politicians, diplomats and aid groups also will seek ways of getting more humanitarian aid to suffering civilians inside Syria.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an audience at Cambridge University on Wednesday that the U.N. has been able to deliver aid to “much less than 5 percent” of the 400,000 Syrians living in besieged villages, many of them in areas controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Neither the Syrian government nor rebel groups are due to attend the conference. But Ban said one of the meeting’s goals was “influencing the parties and regional powers” to find a political solution to Syria’s five-year civil war.

“That’s the only way. There is no military solution,” he told the BBC.